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Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980): Existentialism

Sartre's philosophical career focuses, in its first phase, upon the construction of a philosophy of existence known as 'Existentialism'. Adopting and adapting the methods of phenomenology, Sartre sets out to develop an ontological account of what it is to be human. The main features of this ontology are the groundlessness and radical freedom which characterise the human condition. These are constrasted with the unproblematic being of the world of things. Sartre's substantial literary output adds dramatic expression to the always unstable co-existence of facticity and freedom in an indifferent world. After a brief summary of Sartre's life, we shall look at the main themes characterizing Sartre's early philosophical works. The ontology developed in Sartre's main existential work, Being and Nothingness will then be analysed. Finally, an overview is provided of the further development of existentialist themes in his later works.

The fundamental project

If the project of bad faith involves a misrepresentation of what it is to be a for-itself, and thus provides a powerful account of certain types of self-deceit, we have, as yet, no account of the motivation that lies behind the adoption of such a project.

As we saw above, all projects can be viewed as parts of the fundamental project, and we shall therefore focus upon the motivation for the latter (chapter 2, Part Four). That a for-itself is defined by such a project arises as a consequence of the for-itself's setting itself self-identity as a task. This in turn is the result of the for-itself's experiencing the cleavages introduced by reflection and temporality as amounting to a lack of self-identity. Sartre describes this as defining the `desire for being~ (BN, 565). This desire is universal, and it can take on one of three forms. First, it may be aimed at a direct transformation of the for-itself into an in-itself. Second, the for-itself may affirm its freedom that distinguishes it from an in-itself, so that it seeks through this to become its own foundation (i.e. to become God). The conjunction of these two moments results, third, in the for-itself's aiming for another mode of being, the for-itself-in-itself. None of the aims described in these three moments are realisable. Moreover, the triad of these three moments is, unlike a Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis triad, inherently instable: if the for-itself attempts to achieve one of them, it will conflict with the others. Since all human lives are characterised by such a desire (albeit in different individuated forms), Sartre has thus provided a description of the human condition which is dominated by the irrationality of particular projects. This picture is in particular illustrated in Being and Nothingness by an account of the projects of love, sadism and masochism, and in other works, by biographical accounts of the lives of Baudelaire, Flaubert and Jean Genet. With this notion of desire for being, the motivation for the fundamental project is ultimately accounted for in terms of the metaphysical nature of the for-itself. This means that the source of motivation for the fundamental project lies within consciousness. Thus, in particular, bad faith, as a type of project, is motivated in this way. The individual choice of fundamental project is an original choice (BN, 564). Consequently, an understanding of what it is to be Flaubert for instance, must involve an attempt to decipher his original choice. This hermeneutic exercise aims to reveal what makes an individual a unity. This provides existential psychoanalysis with its principle. Its method involves an analysis of all the empirical behaviour of the subject, aimed at grasping the nature of this unity.

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